Sunday, December 11, 2011
The Tangle of Tradition
God Rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay---
Things are so nuts right now that we struggle this Christmas season to find rest and be merry, let alone be gentlemen, but I sit here right now looking at my decorated tree and I find myself delighted at how silly, how quirky, and how charming are our Christmas traditions – I’m willing to part with none of them. How fun to think of a visiting – say -- Martian trying to make sense of a society that, in the dead of winter, cuts down millions of small trees, sets them up in our homes, and covers them with all manner of, well, of junk.
As the only girl in a family of five children I was often disappointed in our Christmas trees – all festooned with pasty construction paper chains, hanks of tinsel, and tiny bells made by sticky-fingered little boys out of foil milk-bottle caps. I yearned for something stylish and sparkly. Though my grown-up tree has never come in contact with library paste, it’s far from trendy. I am of the tasteless belief that there’s no such thing as too many ornaments, so my tree is laden with everything from Fostoria crystal snowflakes to 10-year-old candy canes. From where I sit right now I can see a square-ish reindeer with 3 glittered trees growing out of his back, a crocheted white angel, a pewter teapot, a bread-dough doll, some brass horns, a knit Santa, a ballerina…. See how confused a Martian anthropologist would be?
My tree, I confess, is a plastic facsimile; in fact we were among the first to own a petroleum by-product tree. Not strictly traditional, but it has saved my marriage and my sanity. My dear husband has always been a gentle Scrooge – “Bah! Humbug!” he’d exclaim at the idea of paying good money for a dead tree, for a tree dry enough to drop needles all over the carpet, dry enough to burn down the house. The grousing stopped when in the late 60’s I spent $25 on a fake tree. I could put it up myself, no need at all to ruffle his crabby feathers. We’re on Tree G-3 now and I adore it.
My perfectly shaped, synthetic tree has, for ages, been topped by a stuffed reindeer, which looks disturbingly like a camel, and carries a load of presents on his back. His limbs wrap around the leader and his facial expression makes it clear that he’s sure he’s falling. He has no symbolic significance – I just find his “How did I get up here?” look amusing and he reminds me of the time I told my 4-year-old, geeky grandson to listen for Santa and his reindeer. Ben put his hands on his little hips and shook his head. “Gravity, Nana. Gravity?” My tree deer is worried about that, too.
Besides the tree, I also love my snowmen. Ages ago I made them out of gourds – one of the dozens of hobbies to which I am unfaithful. The five snowmen gather annually and flirt with each other – Levi and Guinevere have had a thing going from the beginning, and Herkimer still looks like someone just goosed him – Hermione, I suppose; she appears to be having a private giggle. Henry, who is 2 feet tall, just beams; he’s a merry gentleman, even if no one else is.
And what’s Christmas without my row of hand-painted Victorian houses (another abandoned hobby)? I can imagine the tiny inhabitants “hanging their stockings by the chimney with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. ” Speaking of cultural phenomena that would confuse the Martians -- how would they connect that to the porcelain nativity scene by the front door?
How silly are we? Whatever does a 2,000-year-old Jewish baby have to do with Norwegian reindeer and fat men in red suits? Why do they come down the chimneys? What’s with the angels? Or the gingerbread houses? Or the three kings on camels? And snowmen – were there snowmen in Judea? And what’s with the stockings? And the lights? Oh my goodness, the lights! And people rushing around buying presents and music everywhere. …
Ah, God rest ye merry, silly, endearing gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay, for Christ was born in Bethlehem upon this Christmas Day.
And the Martians will just have to deal with it.